Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away
Roger Waters, Pink Floyd, from the album “Dark Side of the Moon”
There are many well-known songs about money, e.g., ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” and “Money Makes the World Go Around” sung by Liza Minelli in Cabaret (yes, I am THAT old). I chose the above verse by Pink Floyd, because I think it captures the essence of the human condition when it comes to money. So what does that have to do with nature and naturalists? Quite a lot, actually! But let’s rewind a bit first.
Money represents value, but before we had it, we traded goods. Imagine going to the butcher and having to drag along a 25 kg bag of flour to buy a steak. Not too convenient, particularly if you lived far away from the vendor! Of course, back then people largely lived hand to mouth, first by foraging for food and later producing food. The first evidence of using something that represented value, and could be used in place of actual goods, appeared in some areas Africa and parts of Asia. They used sea shells, particularly those of the money cowrie, Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus), as reflected in both its scientific and common names. In fact, this was so important that in written Chinese, the symbol for cowrie represents value or money to this day (贝 [貝] ~ bèi ~ cowrie, shellfish, currency (archaic), where the first symbol is a simplified version of the second, which is the traditional way of writing it). In some parts of Africa, this type of representation for value apparently persisted into the 20th Century. To make a long story short, stamped money first appeared in present day Turkey, and the rest is history, as they say. Money allowed us to accumulate wealth more conveniently than by owning a bunch of livestock. Wind the story forward and even more convenient items were invented to serve as legal tender. For example, paper money appeared (Sweden led the way in 1661, see link below), but in today’s world both coins and paper money are being phased out in favour of credit and debit cards, and most recently crypto currency like Bitcoin. Thus, you can accumulate wealth without ever physically touching anything. In fact, my native Sweden is moving towards a completely cash free economy .Back to nature. Our planet is currently experiencing its 6th extinction, and I would argue that money is the ultimate cause of a good part of it. Largely indirectly through habitat destruction due to resource extraction driven by profit-hungry (and often paralegal) corporations , which has led to numerous organisms losing the niche they have evolved into. Rare organisms are also affected directly through killing or removing organisms from their habitat to satisfy collectors of rare animals or plants, or in many cases to feed the Chinese traditional medicine market. An organism may not have an inherent value as such, but collectors have created a market value, which increases with rarity. Take parrots, for example. These charismatic, intelligent, entertaining and beautiful birds are among the worst affected because they are sought after by collectors. Of the world’s almost 400 species of parrots, close to a third are threatened, and a number have gone extinct. In large part this is due to illegal trapping and wildlife smuggling operations. The demand is driven by wealthy collectors, who are prepared to pay as much as $20,000 for a single bird, e.g., the Hyacinth macaw, one of four blue macaws from Brazil (The others are Glaucous macaw, Lear’s macaw, and Spix’s macaw). The glaucous macaw is probably
extinct, and the Spix’s macaw is likely extinct in the wild (although one was seen in 2016, 15 years after the last known wild specimen died in 2001, having lived alone for 16 years after trappers removed his mate and destroyed the last clutch of eggs (Juniper 2002). In his excellent (but certifiably depressing) book, Tony Juniper describes how the greed and selfishness of wealthy people around the world, combined with weak regulations and enforcement to stop illegal trade in wildlife, as well as a general lack of resources in conservation, led to the extinction of this beautiful bird. Subsequent breeding and reintroduction efforts, which was difficult enough due to a small gene pool and a vanishing habitat, were thwarted by petty, greedy and self-serving breeders who would put their own short-term interests ahead of saving the species from extinction. A number of macaw species have gone extinct from Caribbean islands, and the majority of those left are threatened.
Among plants, orchids are targeted because of their beauty. It is a speciose group with 20,000 or more species (the majority listed by CITES), but many are still to be discovered.
Collectors and traffickers of orchids are sometimes introducing undescribed species into the trade before they are known to science. Scientists are now withholding location information of new species as collectors will descend on rare species. Because these are attractive to collectors, they would command a high price. Species are going extinct soon after being discovered because of over-collecting. In addition to the pressures from
collectors of rare orchids, these plants are also subject to harvesting for medicinal and food purposes. The need to possess unique organisms as ‘pets’ can lead to some odd (or should I say sad) situations, e.g., as of 2011 there were more tigers in private captivity in the United States than in all of Asia! Yes, that is tigers, big, striped killing machines! (In fact, it doesn’t take much for such a perfectly evolved organism to take down a human, as this incidence from a few years ago in BC shows.
At the bottom of it all is greed, which in my opinion stems from the ability to skew wealth distribution so that a few have a lot more than their fair share, and certainly more than they need. Greed seems to be a human trait, and it is generally expressed when something desirable is rare or difficult to obtain. If you have seen “The Gods Must Be Crazy” you know what I mean! As we move into a cash-free economy, the ability to accumulate wealth without literally lifting a finger has become easier than ever. It just wouldn’t happen if wealth was represented by cows, for example. The obscene compensations that are doled out to executives of large corporations, including guaranteed bonuses even when they fail, is the modern version of this. Greed makes otherwise law-abiding citizens do things that they might not have considered otherwise – some of the smuggling is done by people who knowingly ignore CITES regulations (Hinsley et al. 2016), and sadly even a scientist (not a biologist, thank goodness) has been implicated in the UK.
It is perhaps a sign that as I was writing this, the last male northern rhinocerous died. Wild rhinos now have to be protected from poachers by armed guards, or their horns have to be removed, because of the value of rhino horn on the black market. Incidentally, rhino horn has about the same medical effect as my fingernails, and nobody would care to buy those, so this is truly bizarre.
Hinsley, A., Nuno, A., Ridout, M., John, F. A. V. S., and Roberts, D. L. 2016. Estimating the extent of CITES noncompliance among traders and end-consumers; lessons from the global orchid trade. Conservation Letters 10(5), 602–609.
Hinsley A., de Boer H.J., Fay M.F., Gale S.W. Gardiner L.M., Gunasekara R.S., Kumar P., Masters S., Metusala D., Roberts D.L., Veldman S., Wong S., Jacob P. 2017. A review of the trade in orchids and its implications for conservation. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society XX: 1–21.
Juniper, Tony. 2002. Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird. Atria Books, New York, NY. 304 pp. ISBN 0-7434-7550-X